Russia Has Got a Problem with Witches

A global study has found that roughly one billion people in the adult population of 95 countries examined believe in "the evil eye," and witches that can "cast curses or spells that cause bad things to happen to someone."

Calculated by assessing surveys of 140,000 people from 95 countries and territories, it was found that, on average, 40 percent of those asked believe in witchcraft. And, people living in countries with "weak institutions" were more likely to believe in witchcraft.

In Russia, over half of the population were found to believe if witchcraft. This is far higher than the U.S., where the figure stands at just over 16 percent. Russia appears to have a stronger belief in witchcraft than many nations in South America, Europe and Asia.

The world's population recently surpassed eight billion and the study authors highlighted that their results likely underrepresented the full scale of witchcraft belief.

There were several highly populous countries left out of the study, including those in the South East Asia region, India, and China.

Map showing witchcraft beliefs per country
A graphic shows the countries studies (in color) and how prevalent witchcraft beliefs are in each. : Boris Gershman, 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Study leader Boris Gershman, associate professor at the Department of Economics at the American University in Washington, D.C., described "weak institutions" as countries with "low quality governance," where there aren't extensive social safety nets that "insulates community members from adverse shocks to their livelihoods."

Gershman told Newsweek that beliefs differed substantially between countries.

"One important finding of my study is that witchcraft beliefs are substantially more prevalent in countries with weak institutions," he said. "The idea is that historically, one of the main social functions of witchcraft beliefs has been to enforce social cohesion and maintain order in societies lacking alternative mechanisms of doing so.

"The importance of this function is higher in societies where social order is not effectively maintained by formal institutions (such as fair courts, trustworthy police, efficient central government), which explains why witchcraft beliefs tend to be more prevalent in countries with weak institutions."

Dangerous witchcraft beliefs remain prevalent in certain countries. In Ghana for example, women are still frequently accused of witchcraft and suffer horrendous punishments as a result.

Until now, exact data on witchcraft beliefs per country have been lacking. The study found that beliefs in "Westernized" countries tended to be much less prevalent. For example, only 16.5 percent of people in the U.S. said they believed in witchcraft.

This could be due to the fact that Western societies tend to have more "well-established" formal institutions, and are able to provide people with a social safety net. Western societies also tend to have higher proportions of highly educated people, who are more reliant on natural rather than supernatural explanations for life events.

A notable finding was that Russia had a witchcraft belief rate of 56 percent.

"This is indeed above average, although far from the maximum score of 90 percent," Gershman said. "The reasons for the prevalence of witchcraft beliefs [being] so low in the West also help explain why it is high in Russia.

"Russia is notorious for its broken institutions including corrupt courts, police, and generally dysfunctional central and local governments. It is also a country that offers a very thin social safety net and has a high proportion of people vulnerable to adverse shocks (such as disease and poverty), and thus seeking to explain misfortunes in their lives (which includes attributing them to supernatural powers like witchcraft)."

Other countries with a particularly high belief rate included Morocco, Tunisia, and Tanzania.

"[The U.S. belief rate of 16.5 percent] is rather low (relative to the rest of the sample) and it is not surprising and is generally consistent with the low prevalence of witchcraft beliefs in the West," Gershman said.

A high percentage of witchcraft beliefs also correlated with those exposed to shocks, such as drought or unemployment, the study reported.

This indicates that, in countries with less well established institutions, witchcraft beliefs may provide people with a reason on which to base their misfortunes.

Tanzania for example, had a high witchcraft belief rate of 80 percent. It is also one of the East African countries suffering severe drought.

"What surprised me more than any specific country were the large differences in the prevalence of witchcraft beliefs across countries, including those that are located in the same geographic region," Gershman said.

"For example, in Scandinavia, the proportion of 'believers' is very low (about 10 percent or so) whereas in nearby Latvia, it is over 60 percent. Similarly, take two neighboring countries of Tanzania and Kenya: the respective prevalence of witchcraft beliefs is 80 percent and 24 percent, respectively."

Russia belief in witchcraft
Stock images representing witchcraft and Russia. Researchers found belief in witchcraft was 56 percent in Russia. Getty Images/PLOS One

The study, titled "Witchcraft beliefs around the world: An exploratory analysis" was published in open-access journal PLOS ONE on November 23, 2022.

The dataset should help policymakers forming interventions, the study said. "Policymakers and researchers may face implementation difficulties, if, for example, a certain project requires mutual trust, cooperation and communal effort, the kind of 'social capital' that is typically lacking in societies with widespread witchcraft beliefs," Gershman said.

"They may also miss the unintended effects of a project due to witchcraft-related fears, such as those that are likely to arise in case of unequal outcomes across community members, for instance, due to selective adoption of a new technology or a novel lending mechanism.

"Witchcraft beliefs tend to generate two types of fear, ubiquitous in communities where such beliefs are present: the fear of witchcraft attacks and the fear of witchcraft accusations and ensuing punishment.

"These fears affect people's attitudes and behaviors in fundamental ways as they seek to avoid provoking a witch and being labeled as one, which explains both the negative consequences and possible social functions of witchcraft beliefs," Gershman said.

Younger people aged 18 to 27 were more likely to believe in witchcraft, the study showed in graphic. Beliefs also correlated with religion. Respectively, 62 percent and 27 percent of respondents identified as Christian and Muslim.


References

Gershman B (2022) Witchcraft beliefs around the world: An exploratory analysis. PLoS ONE 17(11): e0276872. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0276872


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